Homeland: choosing safety over freedom
Homeland is Cory Doctorow’s sequel to Little Brother, which is a novel that takes an updated look at some of the same problems as Orwell’s 1984. Eleanor and Walker and I thought it was such an important book that we gave it to every teen we knew for every gift-giving occasion for about a year after it came out in May 2008. (Here you can read it for free if we haven’t yet given it to you.) (Update: Here is the free e-version of Homeland.)
Homeland continues the story of how the little guy can fight back by recounting what happens next to the inadvertent hero of the first novel, Marcus Yallow (formerly known as M1k3y). Basically, he goes to a big hippie festival called Burning Man, is entrusted with a thumb drive containing over 800,000 files on how powerful people are misusing their power (like WikiLeaks), and then uses his technical know-how and his group of teenage genius hacker friends to make it all public. It’s way more exciting than a plot summary makes it sound, though. This is a novel that illustrates a precept from the movie Serenity (one Jayne says Shepherd Book once told him): “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.”
One of the first things that happens in the novel shows this. At Burning Man, they burn a model of the Library of Alexandria, complete with 50,000 handwritten paper scrolls. Why? Because “libraries burn.” The point, as one of the librarians explains, is:
“ninety percent of the works in copyright are orphan works; no one knows who owns the rights to them, and no one can figure out how to put them back into print. Meanwhile , the copies of them that we do know about are disintegrating or getting lost. So there’s a library out there, the biggest library ever, ninety percent of the stuff ever created, and it’s burning, in slow motion. Libraries burn….But maybe someday we’ll figure out how to make so many copies of humanity’s creative works that we’ll save most of them from the fire.”
The librarian gives Marcus a thumbdrive, explaining that “it’s a compressed copy of the Gutenberg archive. Fifty thousand books and counting. There’s also a list of public domain books that we don’t have, and a list of known libraries, by city, where they can be found. Feel free to get a copy and scan or retype it.”
Marcus also meets the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) at Burning Man. Following what the EFF does is the easiest way I know of to keep up with attempts to block internet freedom (please send your congresspeople a letter to protest the latest attempt to pass a version of CISPA).
Here is the crisis of the novel:
“Have you noticed how messed up everything is today? How we put a ‘good’ president in the White House and he kept right on torturing and bombing and running secret prisons? How every time we turn around, someone’s trying to take away the Internet from us, make it into some kind of giant stupid shopping mall where the rent-a-cops can kick you out if they don’t like your clothes? Have you noticed how much money the one percent have? How we’re putting more people in jail every day, and more people are unemployed every day, and more people are losing their houses every day?….And the creeps and the spooks have the power to spy on us more than ever before, to control us and censor us and find us and snatch us….if we leave the field, it’ll just be them. People who want everything, want to be in charge of everyone.”
The solution, like burning man, seems to be right out of the sixties—a protest. The culmination of Marcus’ attempts to salvage freedom comes when he sees that
“hundreds of thousands—millions?—of my neighbors and friends had taken over the city of San Francisco because they were pissed off about the same things I was pissed off about….it wasn’t just the lobbying to make the deal over student loans even worse, it wasn’t just the foreclosed houses and all the jobs that had vanished. It wasn’t just the planetary devastation and global warming, it wasn’t just the foreign dictators we’d propped up or the private prison industry we supported at home. It was all of it. It was the fact that there was all this terrible stuff and no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Not our political leaders. Not our police. Not our army. Not our businesses. In fact, a lot of the time, it seemed like politicians, police, soldiers, and businesses were the ones doing the stuff we wanted to put a stop to, and they said things like ‘We don’t like it either, but it has to be done, right?’”
Towards the end, Marcus loses faith and tries to tell himself that the story he began telling in Little Brother and is continuing in Homeland will never end happily:
“Once upon a time, my government turned my city into a police state, kidnapped me, and tortured me.” When I got free, I decided that the problem wasn’t the system, but who was running it. Bad guys had gotten into places of high office. We needed good apples….And then, well, the good apples turned out to act pretty much exactly like the bad apples. Oh, they had reasons. There were emergencies….But there were always emergencies, weren’t there?”
Marcus finally does something right. He realizes that if the bad apples aren’t facing consequences for their actions, it’s not because “the system” has failed. “It was because people like me chose not to act when we could. The system was people, and I was part of it.”
There are two afterwords to the novel, with details about how to become part of a better system. One of them is more poignant if you realize that its author, Aaron Swartz, died because of his beliefs sometime between the time he wrote it and the time the novel was published. He gives his website address in case you need help, but he’s not around to help anymore.
The big question of my time and place, as this novel illustrates, is the choice each American has to make every day between working to increase personal safety and working for collective freedom. I keep trying to work towards freedom, but it can be harder than it looks. Listening to a mother explain why she should shelter her child from reading a book or watching the news–without arguing that our children should be reading all the books and watching all the news–is failing to work towards freedom. Stepping meekly out of line when the TSA demands it or acquiescing to the locking of public schools and considering the idea of arming teachers can be failing to work towards freedom. I’ve started to make a list of the times I’m tempted to choose safety. It’s like those food charts dieters are urged to make–looking at the list can horrify me at the end of the day. When’s the last time you chose safety?